The Interregnum: Rethinking New Zealand, edited by Morgan Godfrey, with Andrew Dean, Max Harris, Lamia Imam, Chloe King, Daniel Kleinsman, Edward Miller, Courtney Sina Meredith, Carrie Stoddart-Smith, Wilbur Townsend, and Holly Walker (Bridget Williams Books Texts, 2016), 172 pp, $14.99
This roughly hewn gem of a book of essays is not a primer for revolution but it is a flyer for the transformation of New Zealand’s dominant neoliberal economic and social order into a state more equal and just. The title The Interregnum, borrowed from a famous quote by the pre-Second World War Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, though somewhat obscure, is apt. In this in-between time, following the withering of the welfare state and the rampant growth of inequality, there is a need for and prospect of radical changes.
The subtitle Rethinking New Zealand links to the publisher’s claim that the authors are ‘ten of New Zealand’s sharpest emerging thinkers’. Are there ‘mid-career’ thinkers? The young authors reflect these globalised times in that they are highly educated – two Rhodes Scholars, several lawyers, various policy analysts – and highly mobile, often expatriate, young careerists who have New Zealand roots, allegiances, concerns and prescriptions for the current state of the nation. In another time and place they might be apparatchiks who harboured misgivings about the ‘system’. An adroit introduction by the editor Morgan Godfery draws a credible narrative from the essays that vary in degrees of insight and clarity.
Godfery sets the scene with a dramatic description of the 15,000-strong demonstration on the 4th of February 2016 in Auckland against the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, arguably the largest demonstration since the 1981 Springbok Tour protests. He argues that this struggle against a TPPA that ‘favours international corporate rights over domestic power’ includes the hope for ‘a political framework that favours individual and collective rights over corporate rights’. He includes a telling statistic: in six years (from 2004 to 2010) the wealth of New Zealand’s richest one per cent leapt from 94 billion dollars to 147 billion dollars while taxation became more regressive, especially after 2010, ‘when the government generously reduced personal tax rates at the top while raising GST, which hits hardest in poor households’.
Several of the essayists explore how proponents of the neoliberal agenda manipulate language and try to restrict the field of socially acceptable ideas. Max Harris notes Prime Minister John Key’s low-key language, consisting of phrases like ‘good shape’, ‘significant progress’, ‘strong leadership’ and ‘solid economic growth’ that reveal a ‘sadly stunted vision of politics as little more than technocratic corporate management’. He references Jane Kelsey’s description: ‘neoliberal ideology and policy have produced language that hides the harmful effects of political reforms’.
Andrew Dean lucidly examines how the neoliberal establishment tried to bully a dissenting voice when broadcaster Sean Plunket, followed by Key, railed against Man Booker prize-winner Eleanor Catton. She had stated that New Zealand was run by ‘neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians’ who cared ‘about short-term gains’ and who ‘would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want’. Catton’s father Philip, an academic in philosophy, noted that Key’s ‘apparent’ respect for his daughter’s work showed that Key ‘operated according to a market-orientated rather than a truth-orientated form of reasoning’, that for Key life has become a ‘competitive game’, and that the novelist’s ‘criticism could be relevant [for Key] only if in some contest of power with [him] she were liable to win’.
In his essay ‘Climate Change and Just Transition’, Edward Miller points out that New Zealand in 2013 was emitting a quarter more greenhouse gases than in 1990, even though the country agreed in the Kyoto Protocol (1997) to reduce emissions to the 1990 level. Miller, a trade union official based in Kuala Lumpur, writing one of the more fact-filled and closely-reasoned essays, traces New Zealand’s desultory response to the threat of climate change. He critiques the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement as a ‘locking-in of private interests [that] is detrimental to action on the environment’ and advocates direct government financing as the answer to neoliberal-inspired inaction.
Chloe King explicates and emphasises with the growing plight of low-paid workers and beneficiaries under the present regime. She describes how Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has ‘enacted sweeping and punitive welfare reforms’ such as increasing the paperwork required to register for the dole to 48 pages: ‘people on welfare are losing the paper war’. King details her own gruelling experiences of low-paid work and the welfare system to substantiate her analysis. She concludes with examples of fightback by the Unite Union and the Auckland Action Against Poverty collective.
The economy in the last 25 years (1990–2015) after accounting for inflation grew 48% but the average wage only 22%; finance and insurance salaries grew 62% but retail only 12% and hospitality a derisory 3%. These damning figures come from Wilbur Townsend’s informative essay ‘Reimagining the Economy’. Townsend is an economist and his analysis bristles with chilling statistics of the accelerating divergence in wages and the vast growth in capital (rents, profits and interest) which needs fewer workers, a significant reason being the rapid spread of robotification. A solution to the dilemma of wage stagnation and unemployment is for the state to pay every citizen a universal income, but that could only be afforded if capital was fully taxed. In 2015, for instance, 72 billion dollars was earned by capital but less than a third of that was taxed. In his vigorous trawling of various government statistical data sets, Townsend is obviously inspired by Thomas Piketty and his influential book Capital in the Twenty-First Century that only fleetingly referred to New Zealand.
Marx and other theorists get few mentions in this book, perhaps because the focus is mainly on activism and policy. Carrie Stoddart-Smith, though, in her essay ‘Radical Kaupapa Māori Politics’ theorises an ‘alternative to the left-right binary that Māori political discourse is often captured within’ and suggests a ‘form of anarchism known as “mutualism”, that I believe would be an appropriate complement to kaupapa Māori in its struggle to retrieve policy space’.
The other contributors to the book generally write more discursive and emotive essays, either based on their own experiences or dealing with the need to change the language we use away from neoliberal catchphrases to, as Max Harris states in the final essay, ‘The Politics of Love’. This highlighting of the term ‘love’ seems to be Harris’s retooling of traditional terms like compassion, community-mindedness and, dare one say, socialism.
A small book composed of short essays by ten people cannot help but be a patchwork but there is much finely woven and bright material in The Interregnum. If you are dissatisfied with the general discourse on the present sociopolitical set-up in New Zealand, this is a good, accessible book to read; it raises the standard.
DENIS HAROLD is an editor who lives near Dunedin.